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Teaching Romanticism XXXV: Teaching Social Justice

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As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. We thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts we invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered our call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact us with proposals for future subjects. (The expanded general editorial team now comprises Daniel Cook, Sarah Burdett and Matthew Reznicek.) We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. This volume was edited by Sean Aldrich O’Rourke and Matthew Reznicek. While you’re here, why not revisit an earlier volume (#24) of Irish Romanticism in the series, co-edited by Cook and Reznicek.

Colleen English: Romantic Poetry, Social Justice and the Limits of Sympathy

In Frontiers of Justice (2006), Martha Nussbaum contends that theories of social justice should be both abstract and ‘responsive to the world and its most urgent problems’. [1] A similar duality should be true of the discipline of Romanticism. That is, that the teaching of Romantic-era texts and the principles which animated the radical politics of the era, namely equality, freedom and respect for all living things, should transcend the period to which they belong. However, as The Bigger Six Collective highlights, despite the Romantic era’s emphasis on human rights, and concerns with social problems that we now associate with social justice, the literary circles of the period and the discipline in its present iterations are ‘not suited to facing the exigencies of the present moment, in or beyond the academy’. [2] The problems with Romanticism as a discipline and as a movement whose literary productions were often utilised to further colonialism are complex, multifaceted and cannot be easily remedied. Nonetheless, some of the principles and ideologies of this period can inform the cultural politics of the present. Below I sketch out two ways that I have used Romantic-era poetry to complicate and enhance theories of social justice developed by Sara Ahmed and Nussbaum in introductory level literature and writing classes.

A study of elegy is particularly well suited to discussing the ways in which emotional responses, including grief, are politicised and made part of the fabric of nationalism. In my introductory literature course we read a variety of nineteenth-century elegies, many of which invoke public mourning for departed important cultural figures, such as Walt Whitman’s elegies for Abraham Lincoln (1865), Phillis Wheately’s elegy for the Reverend John Moorhead (1773) and P. B. Shelley’s Adonais (1821). We discuss some of the formal conventions of elegy, the movement towards consolation, the allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, the procession of mourners and the placing of flowers on the coffin, before moving to a discussion of the elegiac, a mood or feeling invoked through mournful or melancholy imagery. This leads us to Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets (1784), where mourning is more closely linked to mood rather than form. Our understanding of the social function of grieving, the evocation of a national family through mourning, is then problematised by more contemporary anti-elegies, such as Danez Smith’s ‘not an elegy for Mike Brown’ (2014). The elegy in the Western tradition, as Smith’s poem makes clear, is a form that marginalises and diminishes the suffering of those not part of the invoked national community. Discussion is enhanced by considering Ahmed’s questions: [W]hat happens when those who have been designated as ungrievable are grieved, and when their loss is not only felt as a loss, but becomes a symbol of the injustice of loss? Is to grieve for the ungrieved to convert an injustice to a justice?’ [3]

In my composition courses, I provide my students with an intellectual frame for writing about contemporary issues by examining the often overlooked topic of interspecies justice, focusing on nonhuman animals, which challenges them to take an even more capacious view of global communities. Poems such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition to Dr Priestley, Found in the Trap where he had been Confined all Night’ (1773) and John Clare’s ‘The Badger’ (composed 1835–37) give students more tangible imagery and scenes to contemplate when considering the ways that Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach could be extended to nonhuman animals. The different poetic techniques Clare and Barbauld use to present nonhuman animals as intelligent and ‘capable of a dignified existence’ [4] serves as a poignant reminder that while issues of social justice may seem more prominent today they have a long history.


Ahmed, Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004).

Bigger Six Collective, ‘Coda: From Coteries to Collectives’, Symbiosis: A Journal of Transatlantic Literary and Cultural Relations, 23.1 (2019), 139–40.

Nussbaum, Martha C., Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006).

Robin Hammerman (Stevens Institute of Technology): Frankenstein and Social Justice for STEM Students

I teach the MIT edition of Frankenstein as a focus in my humanities general education course  for first-year students because its annotations, ‘for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds’, speak directly to my students at Stevens Institute of Technology. Supplementary readings about new developments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) augment our study of the novel and other foundational course texts, including Victor LaValle’s graphic novel Destroyer.

Frankenstein provides me with an opportunity to introduce new students to substantial questions about ethical practices in STEM fields, among which most Stevens students choose to pursue lifelong careers. The course as a whole, with Frankenstein at the center, allows students to begin learning that ethical questions in STEM fields are, at root, social justice questions. Indeed, STEM and social justice both redefine the terms for humanity’s progress and liberation. The maximum global effectiveness of life-changing technologies, for instance, depends on social justice commitments to fairness and equality. Most of my first-year students admit that they were never before invited to extensively consider how this simple, though powerful, matter of fact guides their passion for their major or has personal meaning significantly adjacent to their professional aspirations. The course therefore positions students to start thinking about how to envision themselves as mindful STEM careerists who are attentive to social justice concerns in their professional practices.

Mary Shelley observed through the vehicle of fiction over two centuries ago what remains painfully explicit in our time: that we feverishly inhale innovations in scientific thought and practice to the point of suffocation if we fail to consider the necessary maintenance and repair that happens afterwards. What is the responsibility of a creator to their creation? How shall we care for and about our creations (the products of innovation), and what are the stakes for humanity if we fail to care? These questions are central to the multiple narratives in Frankenstein and they guide discourse in my gen-ed classroom, especially when we bring them to bear on explorations of ‘design thinking’ in Frankenstein and in technologies such as facial recognition applications. Supplementary readings to augment small group discussions include selections from Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (2019). Benjamin’s exploration of inherent, deep-seated racism in the construction of our technologies—and its dangerous implications in this age of surveillance—helps shape the conversation around STEM practices and social justice in this course. Those who were not active in previous class discussions often come alive here.

Social justice concerns reverberating from the advent of Black Lives Matter make Destroyer a timely course finale that shows how the Frankenstein narrative continues to shape socially engaged cultural production. Here, we revisit the trajectory of the fictional ‘mad scientist’ in Dr Josephine Baker, a technologist, Black woman and descendant of Victor Frankenstein. Students view LaValle’s novel as a kind of case study that extends Victor Frankenstein’s personal and professional concerns to document and address the magnitude of those for a twenty-first century woman of color in technoscience. Our conversations explore the decisions Dr Baker makes when she resurrects her innocent and bighearted adolescent son Akai, who is killed by police officers after his baseball bat was mistaken for a weapon. Students observe with poignant critical acumen how LaValle’s speculative fiction recasts the Frankenstein legacy in the context of STEM ethics and social justice for our current moment. The course encourages students to embrace fiction, where authors such as Shelley and LaValle dramatise dangerous choices, as spaces for reflection about beginning their own lives of decision-making and ethical being in STEM fields.  

Vanessa K. Iacocca (University College Dublin): Teaching Arthurian Reinventions to Challenge White Nationalism

The perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch shootings wrote the names of medieval Christian military leaders on the weapons used in these murders. Demonstrators at the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia Unite the Right rally, an event that resulted in the death of rally protester Heather Heyer, used Viking, Crusader and Celtic imagery on shields, flags and other paraphernalia. The British National Party, founded as a racial separatist organization, has used Arthurian references to recruit young people through its so-called Camp Excalibur events. White nationalist individuals and organizations such as these call for the restoration of racially white, monoreligious and monocultural nations based on their own reinventions of ‘national histories’. In doing so, they replicate rhetoric and strategies that appeared in nationalist discourse in the Romantic period, particularly the construction of essentialised and racialised national identities justified by medieval pasts. Functioning as analogues for contemporary white nationalist medievalisms, Romantic reinventions of medieval materials such as Arthurian legend can be used in the classroom to provide students a platform to challenge the myths of national essentialism that emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century and continue to bolster white nationalist ideology today.

Analysing reinterpretations of Arthurian legend from the Romantic period is an effective starting point for students to deconstruct the premises of national essentialism. Romantic poets and antiquarians such as Thomas Percy, Walter Scott and Felicia Hemans each grappled with the cultural complexity of Arthur—a figure disputed to be of Welsh, Cornish, English, Breton and Gothic-derived French origin—to project their own politically motivated visions of Britain. Percy, for example, though acknowledging Welsh Arthurian traditions, prioritised non-Celtic, ‘anglocentric’ [5] romances as his subject material in Arthurian-focused poems in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry to further his construction of a racially ‘Gothic’, and, thus, English-dominated, British identity. [6] Examining individual cases of Romantic Arthurian medievalism allows students to interrogate the fabrication of medieval pasts undergirding the fabrication of racialised, essentialist national identities and prompts them to consider the political interests behind such formulations. Moreover, analysing the politically divergent constructions of national identity created by figures like Percy, Scott and Hemans in concert offers an entry-point into discussions about the multiplicity of national identity. Despite their individual attempts to depict a supposedly homogenous, innate national self-image, these authors’ divergent portrayals together attest to the plurality and constructedness of national identity. These examples, therefore, give students the opportunity to question the validity of national essentialism as a concept and, in the process, deconstruct white nationalist ideology.

In addition, Anne Bannerman’s ‘The Prophecy of Merlin’ (1802) is uniquely capable of generating a dialogue with students about how to challenge nationalist narratives that willfully obscure national heterogeneity with racist, hypermasculine formulations. In contrast to monoculturalist constructions of Arthur by writers like Percy, Bannerman’s version draws on Scottish, Welsh and English sources—including Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (1612), itself largely a celebration of Great Britain’s heterogenous cultural character—to highlight the cultural plurality at the heart of Britishness. Reinstating a multicultural Arthur, Bannerman’s piece demonstrates the fragility of essentialist, and white nationalist, conceptions of nation that retrospectively deplete narratives of the past of their cultural complexity to justify erroneous—and prejudiced—conclusions. In addition, Bannerman’s Arthurian reinvention not only rejects culturally homogenous but also hypermasculine national narratives by substituting the more commonly depicted valorous militarism of the king with an Arthur who faces his mortality with ‘knocking knees’ [7] and is ultimately vanquished by the so-called Queen of Beauty. Bannerman’s poem—itself an exercise in (re)invention—can be used in the classroom to accentuate the fabrication of national ‘histories’ but also to demonstrate how essentialist, monoculturalist and hypermasculine projections can be dismantled, corrected and replaced.

From an icon of Gothic chivalry to an expression of cultural plurality, the various reinventions of King Arthur in the Romantic period offer opportunities for students both to deconstruct the essentialist nationalism that underpins white nationalist narratives and reflect on more inclusive, pluralistic alternatives.


Bannerman, Anne ‘The Prophecy of Merlin’, in Tales of Superstition and Chivalry (London: Vernor and Hood, 1802), pp. 125–39.

Rix, Robert W. ‘Romancing Scandinavia: Relocating Chivalry and Romance in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, European Romantic Review, 20.1 (2009), 3–20.

Young, Helen, ‘Thomas Percy’s Racialization of the European Middle Ages’, Critical Race and the Middle Ages, 16.9/10 (2019), 1–11.

Kelsey Rall (Vanderbilt University): Creative Writing and Empathy in the Literature Classroom

As an English instructor, I’ve noticed that students who are anxious about writing tend to close themselves off from their work. It makes sense: if you feel like you’re not going to do well at something, why invest yourself in the potential failure? This thinking, though understandable, often results in what I’m sure we’ve all come across: the paper that robotically reproduces a canned argument that has been rehearsed to death in the classroom. These papers not only shy away from original thought, but shirk responsibility for meaningfully engaging with, and, in my mind, empathizing with a given text.

I use the word ’empathy’ here purposefully: How do we combat the distance between our students and our nineteenth-century texts, pushing them to personally engage across difference? How do we use empathy to help our students see their writing as an act of communication, a tool for original and critical thinking—not just an end, a grade, but a conversation, a thinking-through? And finally, how do we help our students see how the empathy they practice in coursework can help them engage with a world outside of the college classroom that, through pandemics, violence and partisan politics, feels particularly isolating?

The method I use in my classroom is to assign creative writing activities that not only strengthen my students’ confidence in their writing but help them project themselves into the minds and bodies of nineteenth-century characters—in other words, to creatively empathise with people living in vastly different contexts from their own twenty-first century lives.

The first of these informal assignments asks my students to imagine that they’ve woken up in the body and setting of a character from one of our texts. They have to write about what it feels like to wear that character’s clothes, eat their meals and move around in their world. In a follow-up assignment later in the semester, I have my students repeat the body-swapping in reverse, imagining what it would feel like for a nineteenth-century character to wake up in their college dorm room. While these small assignments are graded solely on completion, they’ve led to some of my students’ best writing—and, just as important, they’ve helped the writers empathise with characters they may not have thought much of before.

I found that after the first few creative writing assignments, my students were much more engaged in class discussions, much more willing to find connections between themselves and the texts we were studying. They dove more deeply into the nineteenth-century texts in front of them, but they also began to feel more comfortable bringing the outside world into our conversations; we ended up having discussions about how the pandemic, isolation and toxic relationships can help us understand Laura’s motivations in Carmilla, or how the misogyny of current debates around women’s reproductive rights has its roots in the heteronormative ideals expressed (and contested) in nineteenth-century literature.

When the time came for my students to write their final assignment—a public-facing blog post connecting the nineteenth century to modern day issues—the empathy and connective work we’d done in class helped them write some outstanding pieces. They wrote about the social linkage of queerness to disease in Carmilla and the AIDS crisis, the safety and isolation of ‘the closet’ in ‘In the Closed Room’, the hedonism and duplicity of social media alongside Dorian Gray. These pieces, far from the dreaded canned arguments I mentioned at the beginning of this article, demonstrated the extent to which my students were willing to think, write and engage critically—and empathetically—with the course and the world outside our windowless basement classroom.

While I’m not operating under the delusion that all of my students walked out of that semester ready to devote their lives to nineteenth-century literature, or that they even all like writing any more than when we started, I do believe that the radical empathy we practiced in class helped them—even just for the semester—navigate the world a little more creatively, a little more kindly.

Sean Aldrich O’Rourke (University of Limerick): Emphasizing Imaginative Immersion in Gothic Literature

In an interview with Gothic Studies, author China Miéville states that fantasy, the Gothic and science fiction,

literalize their metaphors […] the paradox is that genre by its very literalism invigorates both its metaphor and its ‘internal’ reality […] you can see it as powerful, an inhabiting of a kind of space in which critical intuition can hit you because you are inhabiting the totality of [a] work of art. [8]

By inhabiting a fictional world in the way Miéville describes, we can ensure the texts’ metaphor and ‘internal’ reality become mutually generative forces, the realness of the fictional world we are called into empowering its commentary and vice-versa. It is in this spirit that I think we can invite our students to engage in some of Gothic literature’s most relevant social critiques in the classroom.

If we allow ourselves to be immersed in the reality of Gothic works, then what these works often call us to do is read these texts as flawed, real-world documents, often forged by multiple levels of intermediaries. By asking our students to engage with the texts in this manner first, by inviting them to these works as such flawed, ‘real’ documents illustrating a perspectival view on a world we’re imaginatively occupying, we open a powerful fictional space for our students to inhabit. Our students can begin to recognise the ways in which, like a person sitting in front of a news station, gazing upon a twitter feed of news reports, or reading a newspaper, they are having their worldview shaped by intermediary forces when imaginatively occupying the world of a Gothic text. The form of the Gothic work thus becomes a visceral experience of the ways we are made complicit in particular visions of reality.

Therefore, instead of starting our students’ engagement with Gothic texts by characterising the world of the text as important only insomuch as it can be mined for allegory, we might first prompt our students to examine how the texts are formatting our engagement with this fictional world we are occupying while reading the text, thus allowing them to engage with the implications of the text as part of the immersive experience the text is calling us into. How might the narrative framing of ‘Carmilla’ in J. S. Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872) exhibit attempts to conform us to particular ways of viewing that world? How might the motives of the in-universe narrators of Dracula (1897) or Frankenstein (1818) be exerted on us through their rendering of their fantastical narratives? Such questions offer our students an immersive fictional space within which to consider how our vision of the world can be moulded to fit particular frameworks.

We can thus ask students to viscerally experience the intermediary voices that help to form our perceptions of this fictional world and think about what that experience illuminates about frameworks we are asked to support in our world. As we discuss how these fictional frameworks are constructed, we can turn attention to how we are made complicit in real-world frameworks that pattern, for example, how we view and act on the vulnerable and the marginalised. Further, if we can illuminate the ways in which our perception is moulded to fit certain frameworks with which to view the world through engagement with these texts, we might start to explore whether some of them ask us to recognise flawed frameworks and illustrate ways to look beyond them We thus begin an exercise in investigating the discourses that form our reality and even how to identify ways for forming more equitable frameworks.


Miéville, China, and Stephen Shapiro, ‘Gothic Politics: A Discussion with China Miéville’, Gothic Studies, 10.1 (2008), 61–70.


[1] Martha C Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2006), p. 1.

[2] Bigger Six Collective, ‘Coda: From Coteries to Collectives’, Symbiosis: A Journal of Transatlantic Literary and Cultural Relations, 23.1 (2019), 139–40 (p. 139).

[3] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004), p. 192.

[4] Nussbaum, p. 326.

[5] Robert W. Rix, ‘Romancing Scandinavia: Relocating Chivalry and Romance in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, European Romantic Review, 20.1 (2009), 3–20 (p. 14).

[6] For more on Percy’s Gothic racialisation, see Helen Young, ‘Thomas Percy’s Racialization of the European Middle Ages,’ Critical Race and the Middle Ages, 16.9/10 (2019), 1–11.

[7] Anne Bannerman, ‘The Prophecy of Merlin’, in Tales of Superstition and Chivalry (London: Vernor and Hood, 1802), pp. 125–39 (p. 135).

[8] China Miéville and Stephen Shapiro, ‘Gothic Politics: A Discussion with China Miéville’, Gothic Studies, 10.1 (2008), 61–70 (pp. 65-66).

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